Less than three months after reviving diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, thanks to Chinese mediation, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is now on a high-profile trip to several countries in South America, forging strategic alliances and challenging U.S. sanctions.
Raisi's tour, which includes stops in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, is more than just a symbolic gesture of defiance against U.S. sanctions.
According to Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Iran is actively seeking alliances in opposition to U.S. sanctions and aims to promote a vision of a multipolar world where U.S. influence is eroded in favor of rising authoritarian powers such as Russia and China.
"Where rising ascendant powers like China and Russia want to challenge U.S. dominance in trade and commerce … this competition has created this open space for other aspiring authoritarian regimes like Iran to step into the fray," Ottolenghi told VOA.
Geographically and culturally distinct, Iran nonetheless has maintained close ties with some South American regimes for decades, primarily to sow antagonism toward the United States, some analysts say.
During the signing ceremony of several agreements between Iran and Venezuela, Raisi made a pointed reference to their "common enemy," alluding to the United States.
In Washington, U.S. officials have downplayed the significance of Raisi's visit to the Americas.
"We don't ask countries in this hemisphere or any other to choose who they're going to associate with, or who they're going to talk to, or who they're going to allow to visit. That's for them to speak to," John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesman, said Monday.
The United States remains concerned, though, about Iran's "destabilizing behavior" in the region, Kirby said.
"We have and will continue to take steps to mitigate that behavior," he said without elaborating.
In addition to international sanctions, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been facing widespread internal denunciation from women, minorities, civil society activists and concerned citizens.
The Iranian government also has faced scathing criticism in recent months from the United Nations and other independent human rights groups for its alleged execution, imprisonment, torture and repression of women and political activists.
Despite its controversial record in human rights, Iran has secured leadership status at the U.N. Human Rights Council, as well as the U.N. General Assembly in 2023, sparking condemnations from several human rights organizations.
In his efforts to forge worldwide alliances with like-minded autocrats, Raisi also has set his sights on domestic perceptions.
"Iran has sought relationships in Central and South America to demonstrate to a domestic audience that it has friends and allies internationally, despite U.S. and Western efforts to isolate Iran," Cynthia Arnson, an expert at the Washington-based Wilson Center, told VOA.
Decades of Western sanctions have plunged Iran's oil sector into turmoil, wreaking havoc on its economy.
The intensified sanctions imposed by the U.S. between 2016 and 2020 are estimated to have inflicted staggering economic losses of up to $1 trillion on Iran.
In the face of Western sanctions, both Iran and Russia, two major oil producers, have turned to alternative remedies, selling oil to China, India and other countries at heavily discounted prices.
"Clearly, the situation we face today with regards to sanctions is very different from what we had a decade ago when the U.S. was successful in building a very strong architecture of sanctions jointly with allies, mostly in the Western world, but also to some extent with the support of Russia and China," Ottolenghi said.
"In the case of Venezuela, Iran has assisted with a variety of methods to evade oil sanctions — using ship-to-ship transfers, for example, or turning off transponders to make it harder to track shipments," said Arnson.
While the sanctions have dealt significant blows to Iran's economy, senior U.S. officials acknowledge they have not fully achieved their desired objective of changing the behavior of the Islamic Republic.
Iran's growing ability to forge economic and strategic alliances in some parts of the world is considered a serious threat for democratic movements.
"It is not about ideology. It is about power. It is about autocracy," said Leopoldo Lopez, a Venezuelan pro-democracy activist at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
"As they said yesterday in Caracas, it's about going against their enemies. And part of what they identify as their enemies, not only the United States or liberal democracy, is what they call the color revolutions. And the color revolutions are what many of us represent, are the revolutions, the movements, against autocratic regimes," Lopez said.